Showing posts with label story. Show all posts
Showing posts with label story. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 4

Narrators, Their Knowledge And Awareness

Today I'm going to pick up where I left off Thursday (see: Point Of View: Elements) and talk about a narrator's knowledge (restricted vs unrestricted) as well as what I've been calling transparency/awareness. 

But first ...

Why is this important? Why should we care about the narrator and his/her/it capabilities?

The short answer is, because it's fun! It's fun to employ narrators who depart from the omnipresent third person limited viewpoint where the narrator has restricted knowledge (that is, only knows what the viewpoint character does). Stephen King's sprawling, immersive novel, Under The Dome uses a narrator with an omniscient voice. As I discussed last time, at one point the narrator floats through town acting as a virtual tour guide and addresses the reader directly. Brilliant! I laughed out loud. 

Joe Hill, in his book NOS4A2, uses a narrator who--while using third person limited--has an omniscient voice. That is, the narrator knows all about the viewpoint character, knows things about the viewpoint character that character doesn't know. The narrator even knows what will happen to that character in the future. But that's it. Other character's minds and futures are closed to him/her/it.

Having written a bit about why a writer might care about dusty sounding phrases like "narrative voice" let's continue looking at the various abilities a narrator can have. (Note: I'm only addressing third-person narratives in this post.)

3. Restricted vs Unrestricted Knowledge

This refers to the extent, the scope, of the narrators knowledge. Does he/she/it know only about the viewpoint character's present and past or does he/she/it also know:

- what the viewpoint character doesn't
- about the viewpoint character's future. 

Restricted knowledge: 

The narrator is restricted to knowing only what the viewpoint character (or all the characters if using an omniscient perspective) does at that point in time. Therefore, the narrator doesn't know what will happen to the viewpoint character in the future.

Unrestricted knowledge: 

The narrator's knowledge is not restricted. He/she/it knows things the viewpoint character is ignorant of, things about themselves. Also, the narrator can know what will happen to the viewpoint character in the future.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a continuum. On one end of the continuum the narrator has restricted knowledge of the character and only knows what the character does at that moment.

On the other end of the continuum the narrator has unrestricted knowledge of the character; he/she/it knows everything about them, past, present and future. The narrator knows things the character has forgotten as well as things about herself she was never aware of.

For example, Joe Hill in NOS4A2 writes:

"Her Raleigh Tuff Burner had been her birthday gift in May and was also, quite simply, her favorite birthday gift of all time ... then and forever. Even at thirty, if her own son asked her the nicest thing she had ever been given, she would think immediately of the Day-Glo blue Raleigh Tuff Burner with banana yellow rims and fat tires."

We aren't told that her son will ask that question. No. The narrator's knowledge is more extensive than that. The narrator knows that if he asked that question then that would be her answer. That is, the narrator's knowledge of the viewpoint character extends to counterfactual situations (/other possible worlds). At least, that's how I read it.

"The square of brightness at the far end of the bridge expanded and intensified. As she approached, she was conscious of an almost brutal heat emanating from the exit. She inexplicably smelled suntan lotion and onion rings. It did not cross her mind to wonder why there was no gate here at the other end of the bridge either." (Joe Hill, NOS4A2)

I thought that was a nice example of the narrator knowing something about the viewpoint character that the viewpoint character did not. For me, it gave the novel an extra dimension, it seemed to expand the universe of possibilities. It, in an odd sort of way, made the story world seem more real. 

Third Person Limited vs Third Person Omniscient

What POV was that last bit of writing told from? It seems to me it's third person, limited, even though the narrator seems to have full knowledge (/unrestricted knowledge) of the viewpoint character. 

You might wonder why I put such emphasis on this, I used to have the idea that if a narrator was omniscient concerning the viewpoint character--if they had, say, total knowledge of their thoughts and their future actions--that the viewpoint had to be third person, omniscient. 

4. Transparency/Awareness: Representational vs Presentational 

As I discussed Monday, transparency has to do with the narrator's relationship with the audience.

Representational: The narrator never addresses the reader.

Presentational: The narrator addresses the reader and may also express personal opinions.

A presentational narrator will make it clear he/she/it is speaking, not to characters in the story world, but to readers in the real world. A thoroughly presentational narrator knows he/she/it is the narrator of a work of fiction and that someone is reading it.

That said, even in a presentational narrative the narrator will, at times, fade into invisibility making the text seem representational. However, if a narrative is truly representational, the same will not be true. A representational narrative will not have any presentational moments. 

As Orson Scott Card writes in Character & Viewpoint, it is jarring if, in the middle of the story, the narrator suddenly starts addressing the reader. Which is not to say it should never be done, it would just be tricky to pull it off without jarring the reader. 

By the way, all the narrative examples in this post are representational. See my post on Monday for an example of presentational prose.

The Narrator's Presence In A Story

Think of a window. A freshly cleaned window is--as many birds have discovered--practically invisible. It is so clear one gazes through to the other side without noticing it. 

If a window is a little dirty, one notices the window but barely. Most of one's attention is still focused on what is on the other side.

On the other hand, if the window is very dirty then one notices the window almost as much as what is on the other side.

A transparent window --> An invisible narrator
An invisible narrator  --> No personality of their own

An opaque window --> A visible narrator
A visible narrator --> A personality of their own

What is the difference between a visible and invisible narrator? Well, clearly, the least visible narrator is going to be one that tells a story from the third-person, limited, where their knowledge is restricted to what the character knows. Also, they will never turn to the reader and indicate they know what's going on, that they are a narrator in a story you are being entertained by. In this case, the narrator seems non-existent and one focuses solely on the viewpoint character and experiences the story world through the viewpoint character's senses.

On the other hand, the most visible narrator--or one of them--would be one who turns to the audience and announces that the gig is up. They know they're telling a story to an audience--to you. But that's not the only way to become aware of a narrator. Whenever the narrator tells you, the reader, about something the viewpoint character doesn't know the narrator becomes visible. That is, such things encourage a reader to focus on the narrator and not just the viewpoint character. 


As you can tell, I'm currently fascinated with narrators, the kind of abilities they can have, and how storytellers can use them to weave a story.

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Good writing!

Photo credit: "Intrigued" by Marina del Castell under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, September 13

Using Tarot Cards To Tell A Story

Using Tarot Cards To Tell A Story

I thought I'd write about something a bit different today.

Years ago, an acquaintance told me she thought numbers had meaning. Although I didn't share her belief, I was intrigued. Next, she told me the meaning of numbers told a story.

A story! That did interest me and I scooted to the edge of my seat.

She laughed and told me the story and, though it was interesting and I promised myself I'd remember, I promptly forgot it.


This morning I went shopping with a friend who bought a deck of tarot cards. Later, while she was making coffee and puttering around her kitchen, I picked up the tarot cards and flipped through the major arcana, starting with The Magician.

At that moment my friend's story came back to me and I realized something. The meaning of the numbers from one to ten seemed to be a close analogy for something else: The hero's journey.

I'll lay out my reasoning below, do tell me what you think in the comments.

(Please keep in mind I'm not claiming numbers have meaning; in fact, I don't think they do. What interested me was the similarity of the one story to the other.)

The Hero And The Fool

1. The Unaccomplished, Unrealized, Hero

Number 1: The thing itself without division or differentiation of any kind. Pure, raw, potential. (By the way, all my information about the meaning of numbers was drawn from the links on this page over at

This is from at
"... the Magician implies that the primal forces of creativity are yours if you can claim your power and act with awareness and concentration."

Hero's Journey: The Hero in the Ordinary World

The hero in the ordinary world is at the beginning of his journey. He hasn't yet claimed his power and does not act with awareness.

The hero is untried, untested; a diamond in the rough.

The hero has the capacity for great bravery, for acts of courage, but none of that has manifested yet. One day he may be able to slay dragons but that day is not today.

2. The Hero Starts His Journey

Number 2: Duality. Division. Instinctual knowledge. The energy of (1) gets direction.

Hero's Journey: The Call to Adventure

In this second stage what was metaphorical becomes literal. The hero literally gets a new direction with the call to adventure.

For example, Indiana Jones is asked to find the ark of the covenant (Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark), Joan Wilder must ransom her sister (Romancing the Stone), Frodo must destroy a ring of power (The Lord of the Rings).

As with the biblical story of Jonah, our hero may refuse the Call to Adventure at first, but, eventually, something will happen (in Jonah's case, being swallowed by a whale and stewing in gastric juices for a few days) to change his mind.

3. The Hero Enters the Special World

Number 3: The number three brings balance to the two opposites. One can also think of 3 as the child of 1 and 2; in this sense, 3 can be thought of as having been birthed by them. It is a newborn that needs nursing, developing.

Hero's Journey: Entering The Special World

Christopher Vogler, in his wonderful book, The Writer's Journey, puts it this way,
"It [the Special World] is a new and sometimes frightening experience for the hero. No matter how many schools he has been through, he's a freshman all over again in this new world."
Vogler also notes that "the Special World should strike a sharp contrast the the Ordinary World."

So here we have the hero entering a new situation, a new world, with different rules. It is completely unfamiliar. What used to be his strengths in the Ordinary World are weaknesses here and what were weaknesses are now strengths (think Alice in Wonderland).

To sum up: the hero enters a new world that is completely different.

4. The Hero Trains, Becomes Something New

Number 4: If the number 3 is a new thing then the number 4 is the new thing matured. It can be successful, or not. The number 4 is about maintaining what has been created, about building a strong structure.

Hero's Journey: The Hero Finds His Footing.

The hero finds her legs in the new world, she learns how things are, is tested, finds some allies and makes more than a few enemies. Through her journeys, her trials and tribulations, she starts to grow into her own.

5. The Ordeal: The Hero Confronts His Nemesis And Loses Something

Number 5: Something is lost. This could be momentum, love, money, friendship, whatever, but something that was gained in (4) is lost. Also, though, one becomes stronger because of the ordeal.

The hero goes through the trial (usually) victorious. He loses something, but he is made stronger.

The is part of the wikipedia entry for The Hierophant:
"The negative aspect of The Hierophant is well illustrated by the myth of Procrustes. Procrustes was a man (or a monster) living in the mountains of Greece. He invited weary travelers into his home, washed the dust off their feet, provided a meal, and let them lie on his bed. If they were too big for his bed, he cut them to size. If they were too small, he stretched them to fit. At last, Theseus came through the mountains and accepted Procrustes’s seemingly kind offer. When Procrustes tried to cut him to fit, Theseus killed him, making the road safe. In this way, the Hierophant is like Freud’s superego. It shapes us, sometimes brutally. This shaping is necessary for us to become who we are." (Wikipedia)
I would add that not only the shaping, but rebelling against the shaping, is what brings us into our own. It is the fight against the monster that makes us, as the saying goes, "come into our power".

If the hero never fights the monster, never engages it, the hero will never realize his full potential.

Or something like that! (grin)

So here we have a confrontation, like what happens between the protagonist and the antagonist midway through a story, what Vogler calls the Ordeal. Because of the battle something is lost (in the case of Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark it was Indiana's freedom) and something is gained (he gets his lady love, Miriam, back).

(In the tale of Procrustes the Pitiless, although Theseus doesn't lose anything, many of Procrustes's other 'guests' do.)

Okay, that's it for today. I'll go through stages 6 through 10 on Monday.

#  #  #

Personally, I don't put any stock in numerology or the tarot, but I love stories and it seems to me that the cards of, for instance, the Rider-Waite tarot deck, tell a story. Also, I'm intrigued by the possibility they could be used to help us create our own stories.

In any case, since this blog is about anything and everything to do with story--anything that will help us create better, more inventive ones--I thought I'd share!

Good writing, see you Monday. Cheers!

Photo credit: "RWS Tarot 00 Fool.jpg" by Pamela Coleman Smith (published 1909) via This image is not under copyright in the US.

Wednesday, July 31

Chuck Wendig on Plot, Complication, Conflict and Consequence

Chuck Wendig on Plot, Complication, Conflict and Consequence

Chuck Wendig has written what is, I think, his best post on writing so far, and since he has written quite a few fantastic posts that's saying something. Here's his post (adult language -->): Ten Thoughts On Story.

Chuck Wendig's post has ten points, mine only has five and they don't necessarily map onto his points 1-to-1. In any case, there's a lot of great stuff to cover so let's jump in:

1. The three C's of storytelling: Complication, Conflict and Consequence

Here is how Chuck Wendig describes the essence of storytelling:
"[A] character you like ... wants something ... but can’t have [it] ... and goes on a quest to answer that interrupted desire ..."
I put the ellipses in the above quotation because CW refers back to his account of his son's first story. (It's a touching account, I do hope you read CW's article.)

Here's an example of what this looks like:

a. Desire/goal

Protagonist desires something. This something is/becomes the story goal.

Example: In Indiana Jones And The Raiders of The Lost Ark Indiana Jones desires the ark.

b. Complication

Something/someone comes into the picture that/who will prevent the protagonist from achieving their desire. Another way of saying this: someone else wants the same thing the protagonist does but only one person can have it.

Example: Rene Belloq, a rival archeologist, also desires the ark.

c. Conflict

The protagonist and antagonist are pitched against each other in a series of conflicts.

Example: Indiana and Rene enter into a contest, a battle of wits/wills, to find the ark and bring it back to their sponsor/patron.

d. Consequence

The consequence of the conflict. Usually there are three possible outcomes:

i. The protagonist achieves his goal/desire.
ii. The antagonist achieves his goal/desire.
iii. No one achieves their goal/desire.

Example: Rene is killed by the thing he wishes to possess, Indiana takes possession of the ark and delivers it to his patron in the US though, as it turns out, the patron is not allowed to keep it.

2. The essence of plot

This is how Chuck Wendig describes plot:
"[T]he actions of many characters hoping to gain what they desire and avoid what they fear and the complications and conflicts that result from those actions. A character-driven story rather than one driven by events."

3. Your character's motives, their stories, are the most compelling

Chuck Wendig uses Star Wars as an example:
"At the end of the day, the big story is subservient to the little one. The Empire and Rebellion are just set dressing for the core conflict of Luke, Leia, and their father. Or the loyalty of Han. "

4. Every character has to want something

Chuck Wendig writes:
"Money? Love? Revenge? Approval of estranged father? High score on rip-off arcade game, Donkey Dong? Motivation is king. It moves the characters through the dangerous world you’ve put before them. It forces them to act when it’s easier not to. It gives them great agency."

5. The scene: Yes, BUT .../No, AND ...

A story is told in scenes. In that sense, scenes are the atoms of story. (Chuck Wendig touches on this point, but I thought I'd expand on it.)

In each scene characters have desires, often conflicting desires, but there will be one thing in particular--some goal--they're working toward. By the end of the scene that goal has either been achieved or not (probably not). If not, then another goal has likely taken its place.

(Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive.)

An easy way of remembering this is: Yes, BUT .../ No, AND ...

Yes, the hero achieves his goal, BUT there is a setback. No, the hero does not achieve his goal AND there is a setback. Here are a few examples from Indiana Jones taken from my article Making A Scene:


Conflict: Does Indie find the ark?
Setback: Yes, BUT he is captured, thrown into a pit of snakes, and the antagonist takes the ark.

Conflict: Do Indie and Marion survive the pit of snakes?
Setback: Yes, they use torches to keep the snakes at bay BUT the torches are about to burn out.

Conflict: Do Indie and Marion escape the pit of snakes before their torches burn out?
Setback: Yes, Indie crashes a pillar through a wall providing them a way to escape BUT the room they enter is filled with skeletons that--for Marion at least--seem to come alive.

(A bit later in the film ...)

Conflict: Will Indie commandeer the plane?
Setback: No, AND Indie is spotted crawling up the plane, toward the pilot.

Conflict: Indie and a bad guy fight. Will Indie win?
Setback: Yes, BUT a much bigger man starts a fight with Indie (AND the pilot sees indie and knows he's trying to commandeer the plane).

Conflict: The pilot starts to take pot shots at Indie. Will Indie escape being hit?
Setback: Yes, Indie dodges the pilot's bullets BUT the pilot keeps shooting.

Conflict: Indie is fighting a huge bad guy. It looks like he has no chance of winning. Will Indie, against all odds, win the fight against the Man-Mountain?
Setback: No, Indie is not going to win a fist-fight with the Man-Mountain AND the pilot is still shooting at him.

Scenes are chains of conflicts and setbacks followed, at the end, by some sort of resolution/consequence that (unless it's the end of the story) spawn further conflicts and setbacks.

As I said at the beginning, Chuck Wendig's article (adult language -->), Ten Thoughts On Story, is a must-read.

Photo credit: "Smoking Stonehenge" by Bala Sivakumar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, April 9

When Should You Send Your Short Story Out For Critique?

In her blog post today, Jody Hedlund brought up an important issue, one I've been thinking a lot about lately: critiques.

I don't mean what critiques are or how to write one but about when, in the life of a project, we should send our 'word babies' out into the, potentially hostile, world?

When Should You Send Your Short Story Out To Beta Readers?

After the first draft? The second? The third? Should we let others read our stories while they're still in development or wait until we've ironed the kinks out, as it were, and are (we think) ready for a larger audience?

Every writer is different, has different requirements, different expectations, different vulnerabilities, so what works for me might not work for you and vice versa.

That said, here's my take on it.

I like to involve beta readers at an early stage because they have something I almost completely lack: objectivity.

My process for a short story

1. Write the first draft

2. Read over the first draft and do another couple of drafts.
- Check the draft for grammar and spelling mistakes.

3. Give the first draft to a trusted beta reader, someone who has read my work before and given me valuable feedback.
- Wait patiently for him to read my story. 
- Receive the feedback.
- Ask questions only for the purpose of clarifying the feedback. Never defend. Never explain.

4. Give myself time to think about what my beta reader said. Decide how I'm going to incorporate the feedback into my draft.

5. Write another draft, one that incorporates some of the feedback just received.

6. If my beta reader is up for it, I give the revised draft back to the same reader and ask for his feedback on the changes.

7. Depending on the feedback, I may go through this process a few more times.

8. After I feel I've ironed out most of the bugs using this process I give the story to my other beta readers for feedback. 

9. I accept the feedback, change the story where I think it needs it, and give it back to any of my beta-readers that are up for it. I repeat this process till the story seems as good as it's going to get.

That's it.

Let me put on my business hat for a moment.

I'm an independent publisher/author/writer so that means I want my stories to sell. Reviews help my stories sell. And even though a one star review is preferable to no review, I'd prefer to minimize them. (Every writer who does this for a living will get a one star review at some point. Like death and taxes, it's inevitable.)

So. To maximize sales and minimize authorial angst I like to get as many eyes on my manuscript prerelease as I can.

Now let me take off my business hat and put on my scuffed and worn writer hat.

What are stories?

Stories don't live on paper. Like dinosaur bones, they reside deep in our conceptual earth or, like stars, exit 'out there' in a conceptual sky.

We put bits and pieces of them down on paper, sometimes doing funky things with flashback sequences, but the stories themselves exist without us, though they do need us to dig down, find them, and reveal them to the world--or at least to the world of our readers, those wonderful people who make our creative madness possible.

Here's why I need beta readers:

When I read one of my stories my eyes are still on the stars and I don't see the words. I don't know if what I've written will be adequate to communicate what I saw.

Over time the vision will fade and I'll lose a bit of the shocking immediacy that blurred my sight. I'll then be able to read one of my stories and see how the language flows--or doesn't, as the case may be. I will then be able to see the vessel (the words, the language) and not just the thing itself.

I hope that doesn't sound too 'artsy'; I think we each have our own mythology about where our stories come from, each as true as the other.

When I write, I try to use words that will evoke the story I'm discovering within myself. I try to write something that will evoke that thing, that story, that experience, in another.

The only way I can know if I've done that is to get other people, lots of other people, to read my scribblings and tell me what they 'saw', what they experienced.

Then I tweek my words so the story I uncovered within me is the same thing they connect with within themselves.

Or something like that.

I look at critiques both these ways, sometimes with my business hat on, sometimes with my writer hat. What I say about critiques, and about why they are important, depends on which hat I'm wearing, which perspective I'm seeing the issue from.

I hope that makes some sense! (grin)

Nasty Critiques

Some of you may be worried about having your manuscript brutalized by a reviewer/reader/critiquer having a bad day, or otherwise out for blood.

I wish I could say it'll never happen, but it will. Just like getting a one star review is inevitable, having some clod do a vivisection of both your and your story is like a right of passage.

It changes you, but you survive to write another day.

I remember the first time my work was brutalized. It was the first notes/critique I received on a particular manuscript so I was crushed. I cried, I felt like crap. I figured if this was one so bad, what were the rest of the critiques going to be like? But I did one good thing: I didn't respond and just waited.

It turned out the other folks liked the manuscript, though (as expected) they pointed out a few places where it needed work.

My point is that when you get a hateful review know that person isn't responding to you, they aren't even responding to your work, they are either having a bad day and using the opportunity to vent or are the sort of person who thinks belittling others is fun.

Whatever the case, ignore the critique. Stop reading, set it aside.

I think I'll always be affected by nasty critiques, but you learn to shrug it off and move on.

The only time the bully wins is if you stop.

Never stop writing.

Question: When do you send your story out for critique? What is your process?

Other articles you might like:

- Find Out How Much Traffic Your Blog Gets
- Using Language To Evoke Emotion
- How To Create And Maintain The Habit Of Writing

Photo credit: "143/365 Come Sail Away With Me" by martinak15 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, December 13

How To Write A Twitter Story

How To Write A Twitter Story

Twitter is a new, challenging, medium for storytelling, one with its own set of quirks. Today I'd like to take a look at the subject of writing for Twitter. Not novels, not at this stage at least! But short works like short stories or flash fiction.

How To Write Good Twitter Flash Fiction

Gayle Beveridge in How To Write A Good Twitter Story gives three wonderful tips:

a) Your story must have a beginning, a middle and an end

Just like it's longer cousin a story must have a structure, there must be movement, an arc. Gayle gives the following example of a story without an end:
At an auction they bought a box of stuff and spent a melancholy evening reading the one hundred year old love letters of complete strangers.
Here it is with one:
At auction they bought a box of stuff, spent a melancholy night reading the 100-year-old love letters of complete strangers and loved anew.

b) Your story must have a character that needs something

Gayle gives the following example:
A full story will have a character who must deal with something. The following story lacks impact as its character is not challenged; she does not want for anything.
During El-Nino the angler fish rose to the surface. While her husband fished she found them, floating dead.
Add tension and a dull story about a fishing trip becomes one of a women struggling with a mundane life.
During El-Nino the angler fish rose to the surface. While her husband fished she found them. Floating. Dead. She sighed, "They are my life."

 c) Your story must be easy to read

Pronouns are your friend, don't omit them to squeeze more words into 140 characters. Again, here's Gayle's example:
Stonemason chips away at last job before retirement. Will be best.  Passion carved headstone. Written words of love, 'My beloved, my wife'.
Rewrite the story and test it by reading it aloud.
A stonemason chips away at his last job before retirement. It will be his best.  A headstone, carved with passion. 'My beloved, my wife'.
All quotations in this section are from Gayle Beveridge's excellent article: How To Write A Good Twitter Story

A Tweet Sized Story: Examples

In October a number of well-known authors were asked to write what may be the ultimate flash fiction: they were asked to write a story in 140 characters or less. Here are a few:

Ian Rankin:

I opened the door to our flat and you were standing there, cleaver raised. Somehow you'd found out about the photos. My jaw hit the floor.

Geoff Dyer

I know I said that if I lived to 100 I'd not regret what happened last night. But I woke up this morning and a century had passed. Sorry.

Jeffrey Archer

"It's a miracle he survived," said the doctor. "It was God's will," said Mrs Schicklgruber. "What will you call him?" "Adolf," she replied.

You can read the rest here: Twitter fiction: Twitter fiction: 21 authors try their hand at 140-character novels.

Also, if you want to read wonderfully spooky stories that are only 140 characters are less, click here: Scared Twitless.

Tweeting A Longer Tale: The Short Story on Twitter

i. Make the plot appropriate to the format

In 2009 Rick Moody published a short story in 153 consecutive tweets, one each hour. Moody said he tried to make his plot--a story about online dating--appropriate for the "merciless brevity" of Twitter. (See: Are Tweets Literature? Rick Moody Thinks They Can Be)

Brandon J. Mendelson, another Tweeting pioneer, agrees. He writes
If a character is mugged at 6am, you could post a police announcement on the Twitter novel looking for the perpetrator. What are the characters listening to on the radio? Is someone calling them that’s important to the story? Use Twitpic to show a photo of one of your friends or an actor to show the reader who is calling or what the mugger looks like. (How to Start a Twitter Novel)

ii. Have A Roadmap

Have an outline but don't let that limit your creativity. (See: Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining)

iii. Don't Be A Slave To The Machine

Use a service like Hootsuite to schedule tweets.

iv. Don't Overload Readers

Brandon recommends tweeting no more than 5 times a day while Rick Moody tweeted once an hour. Find what works for you and your readers. If you have a website perhaps put up a poll and ask them.

v. Move The Story Forward With Each Tweet

This is true for any story, but especially a tweeted one. Each and every tweet must advance the story. If it doesn't, cut it.

vi. Be Kind To Newbies

Brandon mentions that, with luck, you'll get new followers/readers as you go. Set up a page on your website--or create a simple website if you don't have one already--that contains all the tweets in the story so far, including the day/time they were tweeted, if that's important. Then put the URL to the page in your Twitter Bio so it appears at the top of the page.


- How to Write Twitter Stories (Tzvetan Todorov's five stages of narrative)

Other articles you might like:

- Why Your Story Should Have A Theme
- Hugh Howey's Awesome Deal With Simon & Schuster And The Importance Of Agents
- Turning Off Your Inner Editor

Photo credit: "[ Grand Style : Grand Light : Grand Hotel ] The Langham Hotel, London, United Kingdom @ Langham Place" by || UggBoy♥UggGirl || PHOTO || WORLD || TRAVEL || under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, December 12

Why Your Story Should Have A Theme

Why Your Story Should Have A Theme

Theme has always been a bit of a mystery to me.

One of the ways I've thought of theme is that it's similar to the moral of a story. For instance, Hansel and Gretel. The theme might be expressed as: if something seems too good to be true it probably is. But that's vague and I felt I was missing something.

What Theme Is

Talia Vance has an excellent article on what exactly we mean by 'a story's theme'. In her article, The Power of Theme, she writes:
My take on theme in writing is simple. / What do you have to say about the human condition? That’s your theme.
Talia's agent told her that a book needs to be about more than the characters and plot and if an author can't say what that something is, and in only one sentence, then the book wasn't finished.  Each story needs
Something that makes the reader think beyond the characters and their immediate problems, intruding into the reader’s own views about the human condition, reaffirming or changing the way they look at the world.

What Theme Is Not

Talia holds that the way I had thought of theme, as being akin to the moral of a story, is incorrect. She writes:
One caveat, theme should not be confused with a moral. Themes can be dark and pessimistic. And the goal of your book is not to “teach” a certain point. Your goal is to tell a good story, and through story, share a truth about the human condition. Theme connects readers to your work in an immediate, interactive and persuasive way.

Some Examples And A Tip

Examples of themes:

- Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
- Beauty is only skin deep
- Promises are made to be broken
- A man/woman is only as good as his/her word.
Tip: At some point have one of your characters explicitly state the theme. Stating the theme "primes your audience to interpret events with your world view in mind".


The power of theme is that:
It challenges the reader to question their own beliefs. Through story, a writer can raise new questions and present a different way of looking at society, life and our own belief system. When executed well, theme can help ... people ... empathize with a different world view.
Powerful indeed.

Other articles you might like:
- Hugh Howey's Awesome Deal With Simon & Schuster And The Importance Of Agents
- Robert J. Sawyer: Showing Not Telling
- Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction

Photo credit: "Like Stars" by Mikko Luntiala under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, August 21

Picking Up The Threads: Getting Back Into Your Story

From the blog of Elizabeth S. Craig:
Jumping back into your story:

Consider limited Re-reading: The worst part is losing the story thread. I’ll usually read the last couple of pages and just forge ahead. If I poke around too long in past pages, I start getting my editor hat on. For me, that kills the creative process. But every writer is different. And this is harder to do if you’re way behind.

Timer: I’ll write as quickly as I can for 10 minutes. I won’t worry about if it’s something that’s going to need to be cut later. The important thing is making process on the story…mentally, that’s important. The next day, the writing will be more focused.

Lists: At the very least, sit down and make a list for options for your next scene, options for your character’s development, options for the next big conflict. Get your mind back into the story again.

Silence your inner critic: It’s not doing us any good.

Don’t try to catch up: It’s not fun to meet your daily goal and then write more than that to satisfy your catch-up goal. If I’m not close to a deadline (and right now I’m not), then I’m going to forget about those 8 or 9 pages I’m behind on. Each day is an opportunity to meet that day’s goal.

The important thing is to pick up your story again. It might be that the only way of doing that means taking a small notebook on the go to jot down story notes. I’m doing that today when I take my kids to their dentist appointment. Just figure out a way to fit it in.
"Silence your inner critic: It's not doing you any good." Truer words were never written! Another great article by Elizabeth Craig: Jump Back Into Your Story.

Other articles you might enjoy:
- How To Be A Writer
- 8 Ways To Become A Better Writer

Photo credit: LifeSupercharger

Wednesday, July 4

Query Tracker: Keep Track Of Your Stories

Query Tracker: Keep Track Of Your Stories

Robert Heinlein told writers to put their stories on the market and to keep them there until they sell, but he didn't tell us how to keep track of them.

Unfortunately it can take many, many, mailings before a story finds its home and it would be embarrassing, to say the least, if a writer sent his or her masterpiece to the same place twice!

This is where comes in:
Find Literary Agents & Publishers
- Use our extensive database search tools to locate the perfect agent or publisher for your work.
- Watch a demonstration video.

Organize and Track Your Query Letters
- Keep track of your query letters using the most advanced tracking system available on the web.
- Watch a demonstration video.

View Statistics about Agents and Publishers
- Our database allows information to be collected and shared. This gives access to useful statistical information about literary agents and publishers.
And, amazingly, it's free!

I wondered about this--how can this service be free? Here's the explanation given:
Why is QueryTracker free? QueryTracker is free because it is our goal to collect as much data as possible about query letter results.

To do that, we need as many members as possible to submit their data, and the best way to do that is to make it free.
One of my writing friends recommended QueryTracker to me. She uses it and swears by it, so I'm going to give it a try. If you use it, let me know what you think! Cheers.

Happy 4th of July!

Related reading:
- 6 Rules of Writing from John Steinbeck
- Henry Miller's 11 Writing Commandments
- 7 Tips On How To Get Your Guest Post Accepted

Photo credit: "Punctuation marks made of puzzle pieces" by Horia Varlan under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, June 19

Jim Butcher: How To Write A Story

Jim Butcher is a writer I have a lot of respect for. Not only because I love his stories, but because time again he demonstrates a level of skill in his writing I can only aspire to. Thankfully, Mr. Butcher has been generous, penning many articles about the writing process and giving folks just starting out--or perhaps even well on their way!--many useful tips.

I'd like to talk a bit of about one of Mr. Butcher's articles, "Putting It All Together: How to get your story started," or "Organizing this frikin' mess."

Honestly, when I read this article I felt he was writing to me, this was just what I needed. So I thought I'd pass it along.

So, what are we waiting for? Let's write a story! Here's what we'll need:

1) A story question

2) A protagonist and antagonist

3) A turning point in the middle

4) A story climax

Sure, we need a lot of other things too, but this should help us get started.

1) The story question/The Story skeleton
 Jim Butcher writes:
The story skeleton (also called a story question) consists of a simple format:


For instance, look at Storm Front. (Yes, I'll use my own books as examples, because I'm just that way. ;) Also, I'm more familiar with them than I am with almost any other writer.) Storm Front's story question:

When a series of grisly supernatural murders tears through Chicago, wizard Harry Dresden sets out to find the killer. But will he succeed when he finds himself pitted against a dark wizard, a Warden of the White Council, a vicious gang war, and the Chicago Police Department?
Why does it seem so easy when he does it?

2) Protagonist and Antagonist
Jim Butcher writes:
Simply put, a story is a narrative description of a character (the protagonist/hero) struggling to attain an important goal. In general, the protagonist is opposed by another character (the antagonist/villain).

The protagonist sets out to achieve his goal and faces problems and opposition to his intentions along the way. His risk of loss increases as the narrative proceeds, and casts an element of doubt over whether or not the protagonist will attain his goal. Then, in a final confrontation of some sort (the climax), the protagonist either succeeds or fails, based upon his own choices and actions.
Jim Butcher gave an interview not long ago in which he spoke about how to build a villain, so I'm going to let you follow that link and not talk a whole lot about the antagonist. Kristen Lamb also has an excellent post about this: Spice Up Your Fiction–Simple Ways to Create Page-Turning Conflict.

3) The Great Swampy Middle: Turning point
Jim Butcher writes:
Here's the nutshell concept: Plan a great big freaking event for the end of the middle. You want it to be a big dramatic confrontation of whatever kind is appropriate to your genre. The fallout from your big bad Big Middle event should be what boots the book down the homestretch to reach the story's climax. Really lay out the fireworks. Hit the reader with everything you can. PLAN THE BIG MIDDLE EVENT. Then, as you work through the middle, WORK TO BUILD UP TO IT. Drop in the little hints, establish the proper props and motivations and such. Make sure that everything you do in the middle of the book is helping you build up to the BIG MIDDLE.

(I've used the Big Middle concept in EVERY book I've ever published. It works. It ain't broke. It ain't the only way to do the middle, either, but it's one way.)
I love Jim Butcher's name for the often amorphous middle part: The great swampy middle.

4) Story Climax
Jim Butcher writes:
A story climax is, in structure terms the ANSWER to the STORY QUESTION that we talked about earlier.

There, see how tidy that is? Simple! Again, not EASY, but simple!

For example, the overall Story Question of Lord of the Rings:

When Frodo Baggins inherits the Ring of Power from his Uncle Bilbo, HE SETS OUT TO DESTROY IT before its evil can wreak havoc upon Middle Earth. BUT WILL HE SUCCEED when the Dark Lord Sauron and every scary evil thing on the planet set forth to take the ring and use it to turn the entire world into the bad parts of New Jersey?

And the story climax of the Lord of the Rings:


See? ANYBODY could have written Lord of the Rings!

.  .  .  .

Remember earlier, how we talked about ways to hook your readers and get them emotionally involved in the story? Well, if we've done that right, then when you reach story's end, they are INVESTED in its outcome. They want to SEE what happens, preferably as vividly as they possibly can. By the time you've reached the end of a story, a good writer has got their readers on the edge of their seats, at 3:30 in the morning, and the pages are tearing every time they turn because the reader is so excited.

You've made an implicit promise by getting your reader so bound up in the story. You've /got/ to deliver on it, or that reader is going to freaking /hate/ you for doing that to them. They are gonna go away from that ride all hot and bothered and frustrated as hell. That's what catharsis is: the release of all that tension and sympathetic emotion that the reader has built up because of the writer's skill at weaving the story. Done right, your readers will cheer and cry and laugh out loud and dance around their living room.

EVERYTHING YOU DID IN YOUR BOOK LEADS UP TO THIS. Deliver on the climax or die as a working writer. Simple as that.
Okay? Got it? Ready to write that story? Well then, what are you waiting for!

Oh, and if you want to read some of the best writing on writing--that just so happens to be free--head on over to Jim Butcher's livejournal. All the excerpts on this page are from

Monday, June 11

Pixar: 22 Ways To Tell A Great Story

Pixar: 22 Ways To Tell A Great Story

Who doesn't like a Pixar movie? Pixar's films have made almost 8 billion dollars worldwide and have won 26 Academy Awards.

Want to know how Pixar creates riveting stories? Here are 22 pearls of writing wisdom from Emma Coats and the creative minds at Pixar:
1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on - it’ll come back around to be useful later.

18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there. (Pixar story rules (one version))
Emma Coats (@lawnrocket), a storyboard artist at Pixar Studios, originally published each of the above as a tweet.

Thanks to the Passive Voice Blog for posting a link to Emma's tweets.

Other articles you might like:

- How To Write Short Stories
- Write A Novel In A Year, Chuck Wendig's Plan: The Big 350
- 7 Tips On How To Get Your Guest Post Accepted

Friday, May 25

Writer Beware: Undead Press & Editing Clauses

Edited: June 23, 2021:
Hi, I just received this comment:
"Hey, it seems that actually refers to something about our domain name from 2012.. Way before we bought this domain name, that is not related to us in any way. We bought the domain a few months back. Somehow this ended up as a comment about our site on Facebook now."

I don't want to remove this post because I think history is important. However, (and I haven't researched the claim being made) I see no reason not to believe that the domain name has been sold. Please do keep this in mind when deciding whether to submit your work to Undead Press. And, please, ALWAYS read the terms of service of any publishing company before you submit your work to them.  Here is a link to the Terms and Conditions of Undead Press.

Here is the original post: 

Imagine getting your work accepted for publication, waiting on pins and needles for your copy of the work to arrive, ripping open the package, and finding it had been substantially altered without your permission. Mandy DeGeit sent her short story to Undead Press, it was accepted, but on publication not only was her title misspelled but her story had been substantially altered. She writes:
Let’s see: They turned a non-gendered character into a boy, they named the best friend, they created a memory for the main character about animal abuse. They added a suggestion of rape at the end… I feel like they ruined the suspense in the story.
- When publishing goes wrong…Starring Undead Press
After bringing this to the publisher's attention (Anthony Giangregorio) this is what he had to say:
wow, i truly cant believe that e,mail. you go girl. this one one hell of a story about dealing with unstable writers
lets see.
on the contract, it clearly says publisher has the right to EDIT work. you signed it. are you saying you are a dishonest and immoral person and will now try to deny you signed the contract? well i have a copy right here and as for the story. the editor had a hard time with it, it was very rough and he did alot to make it readable. despite what you think, your writing has a long way to go before its worthy of being printed professionally. we did what we had to do to make the story printable. you should be thankful, not complaining. ah, the ungrateful writer, gotta love it the contract also says any disagreements you have about the contract must be filed legally in Massachusetts and when you lose, you must pay all court costs. so, we are done here. any more correspondences from you must be from your lawyer. i will then send any of those letters to my lawyer and they can hash it out as i dont waste my time arguing with writers over legalities. thats what lawyers are for. you are so funny. thanks for this email, it truly made my day.
- When publishing goes wrong…Starring Undead Press
I don't know where to begin, this reply lacks any sort of professionalism, any sort of respect for the writer. But that isn't the worst of it. This is from the folks over at Writer Beware:
Ms. DeGeit's bad experience with Mr. Giangregorio, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be an isolated incident. Similar complaints are appearing in her comments thread, and other writers have reported the same kinds of problems with Undead Press and other publishing ventures run by Giangregorio--who, among other exploits, has apparently published and sold several unauthorized sequels to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead.
- Editing Clauses in Publishing Contracts: How to Protect Yourself
PG, from The Passive Voice Blog, is a contract lawyer who specializes in contracts between writers and publishers. Here's what he has to say:
PG will add one more piece of general advice concerning all types of agreements: Don’t do deals with crooks or jerks.

Even with the best contract in the world, if the people on the other side of the agreement are crooks or jerks, you’re going to have a difficult time. On more than one occasion, PG has told a client something like, “With some work, I can probably get your contract whipped into shape, but this guy is still going to drive you crazy and figure out some way to steal from you.”

PG has read enough contracts so he sometimes picks up hints of jerkiness in the way the contracts are worded or assembled.

He can think of one contract from a romance publisher that included all sorts of short clauses about minor items he doesn’t usually see in publishing contracts. The net impression for PG was that the owner of the publisher was a control freak who was going to tell the author exactly how every little thing would be and expected no back talk. The answer to any question or objection by the author would be, “I’m the publisher and you’re not.”
- Editing Clauses in Publishing Contracts
I think that Kris Rusch's advice about reading a contract line by line is terrific. Keeping in mind, of course, that taking someone to court can be an expensive and time consuming ordeal even if you know the other party clearly broke the contract and you're sure to win.

Further reading:
- Unconscionability

"Writer Beware: Undead Press & Editing Clauses," copyright© 2012 by Karen Woodward.

Tuesday, May 22

Elizabeth S. Craig's Tips For Developing A Story Idea

Ask yourself ...
What works best for your genra?
First of all, we have to know our genre. We should be a fan of our genre and read a lot of it. What story elements satisfy us most when we read our favorite genre? Do we like more action, more humor, really strong characters, flawed main characters, lots of internal conflict?

What do our readers like? 
This is where I read over my Word file where I’ve compiled both complaints and compliments for my past books. I provide more of what was successful (particular characters, particular situations, etc.) and less of what readers disliked or complained about in reviews.

Is this a big enough idea that you can develop it for at least 75,000 words? 
Can this idea carry a full-length plot?

Is the plot too derivative? 
If it’s too much like a hundred other books in your genre, what fresh take can you give it? Can you provide your character with a unique voice? Think of some fresh spin on the old plot? 

How much trouble/tension/conflict can your story engender? 
Can you think of ways to add more? Will there be enough natural conflict to keep a fast pace?
Specific to mysteries:
For me it all starts with the victim—they’re the catalyst for everything. Why would someone want to kill this person?

Why would my sleuth (I’ve got an amateur, so this is an important question for me that wouldn’t be if you’re writing a police procedural or private eye story) get involved in this murder?

Who are the suspects? 
This question ties in very closely to the victim question since these are the characters who wanted to kill the victim. But this is where I decide if they’re male or female and how they all knew the victim.

What do these people have to hide? 
What are they trying to cover up?

What different kinds of motives could these suspects have? Again, this one ties into the victim question, but I actually list the motives out. My editors aren’t real crazy about having three different people who all wanted to seek revenge on the victim, for instance. Better to have a variety of motives: personal gain, jealousy, ambition, revenge, rage, etc. 

How is the victim going to die? 
Who discovers the body? Who seems to have an alibi? Motive/means/opportunity.

Who is my second victim? 
How does this change the investigation?

Who did it? 
(And I do change this a lot. But for the purpose of handing in a proposal, I name a killer in the outline. Sometimes I’m asked to change the murderer…I changed it by editor request for the book I just finished May 1.)

And really, that’s all I need to know for this proposal/outline. And it’s all I need to know to write the book.
I always like getting writing tips from my favorite authors. Read her entire article here: Developing a Story Idea